Fermilab Today Friday, Nov. 12, 2010

Fermilab takes fun to DC

Children in Washington, D.C. use metal balls to learn about energy exchange during collisions at the Fermilab booth.

Jerry Zimmerman performs a cryogenics demonstration during the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Adrian Mead, a senior from Oakton High School in Virginia, volunteers at the Fermilab booth. He shows how his school uses a cosmic ray detector from the QuarkNet program to learn about particle physics.

Jerry Zimmerman uses colored sand to explain how matter came to dominate antimatter in the early universe.

Middle and high school students from Virginia and Washington, D.C. ask Leon Lederman for his autograph and pepper him with questions about his research.

A group of preteen girls entered the Fermilab exhibit tent on the Washington, D.C. Mall and pushed forward to stare at the numbers whizzing by on an electronic counter. 6,000. 6,015. Their foreheads crinkled.

Adrian Mead, a high school senior, spoke directly to the girls.

“It’s counting the number of cosmic ray muons that go through the two detectors in a short time,” he said, pointing to a laptop-sized block covered in electrical tape with PVC pipe and wires sticking out of it. He marked off a space with his fingers that was smaller than a postage stamp. “There are thousands going through an area like this right now.”

The girls leaned forward to get a closer look.

Interactivity — and often an air of mystery — marked most of the more than 1,500 exhibits and 75 stage shows that took over the National Mall in late October for the first U.S. Science and Engineering Festival. Fermilab and 350 of the nation’s leading science and engineering organizations joined together in the hopes of engaging the nation in the wonders of science and inspiring youth to consider scientific careers. To meet the needs of a competitive global economy, science and engineering jobs in the U.S.  have grown at twice the rate of the American workforce as a whole, reported the National Science Board.

Mead plans to pursue a career in mathematics, though he said that he’s really attracted to the gee-whiz-type facts that populate particle physics. He told the girls that the invisible muon particles the detector counts — cascading remnants of the energy of the sun — are all around them. He also told them that his friends in his Oakton High School science class made the detector to make the particles visible to the computer. He held off on telling them billions pass through their body each second. “I didn’t want to make them cry,” he said.

He got a lot of questions from the crowd that often measured three deep at the Fermilab booth about how the detector works. If he didn’t know an answer, he simply turned to one of the scientists working the exhibits around him or the Education Office staff. They filled in the blanks about how particle physics experiments build high-tech versions of this type of detector to look for dark matter and even the Higgs boson. They also explained how the national QuarkNet program provides schools such as Mead’s with these detectors to let students get a hands-on feel for science and share data with schools across the globe. Several teachers took notes.

“Not all principals know this stuff exists,” said Pam Greyer, who organizes science courses with middle and high school teachers in Chicago. “Our kids graduate, and there’s a huge piece of the world they are missing.”

These types of hands-on festivals give children and parents a chance to develop an appreciation for science, which can encourage them to seek other avenues for learning, she said.

For those who weren’t new to science, the festival offered a chance to expand their knowledge about modern science, such as particle physics, rarely found outside of college textbooks.

Game-like exhibits made the introduction to the topics easy. A U-shaped track let visitors ram steel balls together to learn about how energy gets exchanged during collisions, just as occurs with protons and antiprotons that collide in Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator. Shooting balls down a table at hidden targets demonstrated how scientists must use probability calculations to determine the diameter of the target, similar to the way scientists probe a nucleus.

Those who wanted to put a face on science got a chance to visit with Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman or TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy, whom Mead wandered off to find.

“He got me interested in science when I was a kid,” he said.

Maybe one of the festival visitors will say the same thing about Mead one day.

-Tona Kunz

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